This is the point in the legislative session when the hard work of committees comes to the House floor. This week we debated a number of important bills including the budget. After a detailed explanation, the budget passed 139-1, indicating approval of not just the Appropriation Committee’s proposal but the process. Appropriations held numerous public hearings, solicited advice and suggestions from legislators and other committees, and worked with the administration’s recommendations.
Representatives each have their budget disappointments that more wasn’t allocated for their areas of concern, which are many. But overall the Appropriations Committee has done a remarkable job of moving state priorities with limited current means and some grim demographic projections.
Many other bills were also approved, including the Capital Bill which consists of $125 million in bonding, focusing on “bricks and mortar”: upkeep of state buildings, grant programs, clean water and housing. A workforce development bill, a critical child care assistance bill, and the broadband expansion bill passed as well.
The biggest fireworks were reserved for H.439 “The Home Weatherization Assistance Program.” Legislators are in nearly unanimous agreement that home weatherization provides great return on investment in terms of health, job creation, fuel savings, and participation in work and school. Disagreement comes on how to raise the money.
The existing program is funded through a 2¢ per gallon tax on heating oil, propane, kerosene, and dyed diesel fuel, and a 0.75% levy on natural gas and coal. The bill proposed expanding the program by increasing those charges to 4¢ a gallon, and 1% and 1.5% respectively. That would raise $4.6 million.
Heated debate (no pun intended) followed on whether this is a regressive tax, though my amendment to shift the program cost to a progressive tax on the highest income bracket was soundly defeated. There was debate on whether other fuels are similarly taxed – and they are, one example being the charge on our electric bills which pays for efficiency programs. And we debated whether this is a “carbon tax” in disguise.
On that question I side with those who say it is not. A carbon tax is generally understood to 1) be set much higher in an effort to influence behavior, which this does not do, and 2) to vary with the carbon content of the different fuels, which this also does not do. This is like the existing gasoline tax which taxes a specific produce (gasoline) to raise money for a specific purpose (highways).
In the end the bill passed with an amendment to exempt farming and logging operations, which I supported. All these bills and others now move to the Senate for consideration.
Hundreds of high school students converged on the Statehouse last Friday to stage a rally and a press conference, and to testify in various committees. They came to demand action on climate change. Those who spoke in the Energy Committee were articulate, informed, and frustrated. And they weren’t wrong.
The Legislative Calendar for Tuesday, March 19th is packed with 25 different bills for action or taking their place in the lineup. Some are minor adjustments to or streamlining of existing law. Some break new ground. None of them relate to climate change.
That doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t getting serious attention, just not the attention that it deserves. However, in legislative speak “attention” usually means money; how best to raise it and how best to spend it.
Two general ideas are getting a lot of traction. One is a proposal to increase funds for weatherizing Vermont’s old drafty housing stock, which has multiple benefits. In addition to reducing fuel consumption and saving money, warmer homes mean healthier people in them – less time lost from work and school, lower medical costs, and less family stress.
The other idea is a proposal to incentivize the transition to electric vehicles, a change that most major manufacturers will be making in the near future, worldwide. This also requires simultaneous development of a statewide system of charging stations, both publicly and privately owned.
Both plans have plenty of wrinkles to iron out. What are the specific goals? What is the most effective program? How much do we spend? For how long? What is the revenue source? Who is eligible to benefit? What are the consequences of acting? (Fewer gasoline engines means less gas tax money collected means less revenue for the highways.) What are the consequences of not acting?
I look forward to theses proposals taking their place on the House floor soon.
High speed internet is no longer a luxury. In addition to being indispensable for virtually all businesses, it is the lifeline for many of Vermont’s cottage industries or work-from-home artists, craftspeople, and start-ups. Unfortunately, for too many people it is a frayed and unreliable lifeline.
How did we get here?
In Vermont, electric and telephone service are provided by regulated monopolies. The agreement is that providers of both services will operate under tight state regulation in exchange for a designated territory. A look at the map of electric utility territories clearly illustrates the history of private electric companies expanding only into territories with enough population density to earn them money. It was left to the electric co-ops to provide this now essential service into the boondocks, which was only feasible with serious federal commitment in the form of the Rural Electrification Program. But it worked.
The growth of broadband service is following an identical track. But broadband is federally regulated – and the federal government is clear that they still prefer a lightly regulated “free enterprise” approach. Private companies like Consolidated, xFinity, and VTel will build out service where they can make money, or where they receive subsidies. Any area providing fewer than about 15-20 customers per mile just don’t interest them. Unless there are subsidies. Most telephone companies are offering service to their existing customers but that is often a copper wire-based DSL internet in rural areas which has many limitations.
So what can we do?
The House Energy and Technology has approved a bill which takes a three-pronged approach.
- Currently, incentives for broadband providers to expand unto unserved or underserved areas come from the Connectivity Initiative. That is funded by the Universal Service charge on your phone bill – currently a 2% tax. But that tax first funds the E-911 service and some other programs as well. Then whatever is left over gets split and one of those portions is the available money for broadband expansion. In 2018 it was about $200,000. In 2019 it is forecast to be $0.
The Committee’s proposal is to add another 0.5% to that tax; that would generate about $1.5 million annually. On my home’s phone bill it would be an extra 4.5¢ per month.
2) The bill also requires a feasibility study of electric utilities providing broadband service, as is already happening in some states. Certain synergies exist: electric utilities already service almost every building in the state. Utilities require more intensive data handling to become efficient real-time energy managers; they also require a comprehensive, high speed communications network
There are obvious challenges as well. Utilities do a good job operating within the regulated monopoly sphere. But broadband is lightly regulated and highly competitive, so we are asking utilities to operate two very different business models together.
3) Recognizing that to date, neither private enterprise or the state has been able to resolve these issues the bill also creates a “toolbox” to assist communications union districts and other entities to take on broadband network expansion and operation. Learning from the experience of EC Fiber we are offering three tools: a new technical expert position created to advise these entities; grants and low interest loans for planning and construction; and a streamlined process for “makeready” – getting wires onto the poles.
These three options are not the only ones, but they represent a variety of approaches. Different areas require different solutions, and hopefully these options will fit different needs in different places.
This week the House approved a compromise bill affecting deadlines for school district mergers under Act 46. The compromise allows a one year extension for some towns who have been working diligently but unsuccessfully to merge. The remaining towns that have not yet complied need to meet the July 1, 2019 deadline. That bill now goes to the Senate.
The bill generating the most passion is H.57, which would put into statute the current status quo for abortions. It is important to note that the bill, which has not yet come to the House floor, neither enhances nor diminishes access to abortion procedures in Vermont. Rather it establishes current practice as law.
This is an inflammatory issue, as evidenced at the open hearing last week in Montpelier at which 60 members of the public spoke passionately and eloquently – 30 opposed to the bill and 30 in favor. The debate is not just political. It is personal, ethical, spiritual, and social and it hinges on our beliefs in fundamental rights.
Many people on both sides of the debate have contacted me with their concerns, and I appreciate the input and the ongoing discussions. This bill is still a work in progress, and has already been modified.
My position is that while I do not promote abortion and in a perfect world I hope there would be no need for it, I do support a woman’s right to make that choice. Women have always sought out ways to end unwanted pregnancies. Roe v. Wade was not the start of abortions; it marked the end of women dying from them. The best way to prevent abortions is through education and readily available birth control.
This week the Vermont House passed H.57 codifying the right of “every individual who becomes pregnant to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, to give birth to a child, or to have an abortion.” Vermont had no state laws regarding abortion, so this bill creates a basic framework. The final vote in the House was 107-37. I voted in favor and the bill now goes to the Senate.
The Senate approved and is sending to the House bills raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024, and a bill exempting cars over ten years old from inspection emissions standards. The goal is to reduce the financial pressure on lower income Vermonters, many of whom drive older vehicles and who struggle to afford repairs. But that goal conflicts with the state’s environmental goals and EPA air quality standards. This makes for an interesting debate.
The Energy and Technology Committee is putting the finishing touches on an omnibus broadband bill with three approaches to expanding broadband access around the state. The first is to increase money available to existing underfunded programs by increasing the Universal Service Fee (telephone tax) by 0.5%. On my telephone bill that would be an extra 4.5¢.
The second approach is a study to allow (but not require) electric utilities to become broadband carriers. This has been done by some co-ops in other states but involves a fair amount of risk and very different business models; in Vermont electric utilities are tightly regulated monopolies while telecommunications are lightly regulated, and highly competitive.
The third approach is to assemble technical, regulatory, and financial assistance for Communications Union Districts and other entities which are expanding broadband into underserved areas.
The Legislature is operating under tight timeframes. Of over 800 bill drafting requests, only about 400 have been finished and sent to committees for consideration. Of these a very small handful have been passed by the House. Our deadline for bills to be passed out of committee (and some bills need to go through several committees) is March 15th.
The Legislature is not in session during Town Meeting week, which leaves us eight legislative days to take testimony, amend, and approve any bills we hope to move this year. After March 15th we will shift focus to shepherding those bills through House votes and then taking up whatever bills the Senate has sent over to us. We will also be taking a good look at which bills we want to take up in the second year of the biennium.
At the close of Town Meeting Week the Legislature is gearing up for some hectic activity. Friday, March 15th is crossover – the day by which bills need to be voted out of committee so they can “cross over” to the other chamber. The budget and tax bills get an extra week in recognition of their complexity.
What this approaching deadline means is that most of the record number of bills introduced this year will not see the light of day; including at least eight that I am a lead sponsor on. Four are energy bills, one is judicial, two involve government operations, and one is about tax incentives. But they aren’t entirely dead in that they could still show up as amendments to other bills or be taken up next year.
Some big bills, like the Act 250 overhaul, have proven to be just too big a lift for the first few months of the session. Remember we have 40 new House members, and a lot of changes in in committee assignments, so people need to get up to speed. On my committee six out of nine members are new to the committee, though several bring extensive prior knowledge in certain areas.
Bills that I expect we will see in some form this spring are minimum wage, paid family leave, broadband expansion (which I see primarily as economic development), and regulated cannabis sales. The legislature is also continuing to push forward on mental health treatment, addiction treatment and the many, many impacts on family, work, schools, communities: and trying to match workers to the 10,000 job vacancies in Vermont that exist right now. Simple solutions are complicated by low wages, difficult access to child care, and unaffordable housing.
As always please write or call with questions or comments. 282-5535